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Book Review

Two national security advisers talk about the future

Zbigniew Brzezinski (left) and Brent Scowcroft (Photos by William Friucht) In ''America and the World,'' Zbigniew Brzezinski (left) and Brent Scowcroft look at the world facing our next president.
By Rich Barlow
December 3, 2008
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During the Cold War, American defense planners war-gamed a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. As described by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, we'd know the targets and scale of coming destruction two minutes after the Soviets launched. At three minutes, we'd know when the missiles would hit. Between three and seven minutes, the president would have to decide how to respond. Four minutes to decide how much to shoot back, and at what.

"Six hours later, one hundred fifty million Americans and Soviets are dead," says Brzezinksi in "America and the World."

Brzezinksi and Brent Scowcroft, his counterpart in President George H.W. Bush's and President Ford's administrations, chat about the world facing our next president in this conversation-between-covers. (The book is made up of transcripts of discussions between the two men, moderated by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.)

As foreign-policy realists, their main concern is America's national interest, tempered by values. Both conservatives and liberals will find their blood pressure spiking at times. That means there is wisdom here.

Brzezinski and Scowcroft agree that the United States must do more to combat world poverty and global warming, though these are sentiments rather than plans addressing the knotty economic and political details. They agree that Israeli-Palestinian peace is the Mideast priority, especially to slow the conveyor belt of angry recruits into terrorism. With fears that Iran is enriching uranium to go nuclear, Scowcroft suggests we call the Iranians on their claim that they want only energy, not weapons, by offering to sell them enriched uranium, with a deal to remove it once it's spent. Brzezinski says international law allows Iran to enrich; to stop them, we should offer to lift current economic sanctions.

Both men opposed the Iraq war, but Brzezinski would remove American troops sooner, though he's open to leaving behind a residual force to guard against the nation becoming a terrorist haven a la Afghanistan before 9/11. Scowcroft thinks such a residual force would smack of a permanent American presence and should be avoided. On that point, Brzezinski's more persuasive.

The other dispute is over expanding NATO to Russia's borders, welcoming former Soviet satellites Ukraine and Georgia. Brzezinski argues that caving to Russian demands against expansion would only be "reinforcing their imperial nostalgia." It's an emotionally appealing argument, but given that Vladimir Putin has nukes, that we'd be outraged by a similar encroachment on our border, and that there are less provocative ways to bind the satellites to the West (Scowcroft suggests their joining the European Union, unlike NATO a nonmilitary alliance), Scowcroft makes the better case.

Ignatius should have probed more on some questions rather than padding his prose with repetition and fawning. ("You each famously had the courage and foresight to speak out before the Iraq war and warn that it was a mistake" is an early example, and not the last.) Still, had Sarah Palin read this handy primer before the election, she might have had more to talk about than the view of Russia. The rest of America should read it now to understand what lies before us.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlow81@gmail.com.

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AMERICA AND THE WORLD: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy By Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft

Basic, 291 pp., $27.50

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